Pachypodium namaquanum (2017)

By Rita Taylor (October 2017)

After attending the CSSA conference and seeing the plants for sale, I realized that I have quite a prize in the large and beautiful Pachypodium namaquanum that I won as an attendance prize back in March.

My 6.5-inch-tall plant is capable of growing to a height of 8 to 12 feet, with a treelike appearance when fully grown. At present, it reminds me of a slim, tan pineapple with a lot of 1.5-inch needles sticking out of the body and a cute little topping of green leaves in rosettes, which popped up in June and continue to crown my plant. This full-sun plant is deciduous and grown for its foliage. It can have red or yellow flowers that bloom in mid-spring.

P. namaquanum seems to favor rocky mountain slopes that are exposed to extreme summer heat and wind. Its habitat includes the rugged mountains of Richterveld National Park and the hot, dry Gariep (Orange River) Valley that are part of the lunarlike landscapes of South Africa and Namibia.

There, the climate is harsh, and the weather is unpredictable. There is sparse rainfall, which is supplemented by thick fog that sometimes moves inland from the coast. The maximum summer temperature might be 118 degrees F, with the mean temperature around 77 degrees F.

This deciduous plant is drought-tolerant and suitable for xeriscaping with a hardiness of USDA Zone 10b to 35 degrees F or Zone 11 above 40 degrees F. It can be a good container plant.

Propagation can be from woody stem cuttings. Allow the cut surface to callous over before planting. Cuttings take a very long time to show active growth. My plant has no stems – it just looks like an overgrown, spiny egg. I do not know how old the plants usually are when they finally put out stems.

As for seeds, allow the seed heads to dry on the plant, then remove and collect the seeds. Sow fresh seeds indoors before the last frost. One source states that P. namaquanum does not do well away from its natural environment, even though the seeds germinate easily.

Note that all parts of this plant are poisonous if ingested. Its sap is used for poisoned arrows. Beware, for the sap can cause blindness when it comes in contact with the eyes.

Another item of note is that when the spines that stick out from the body or stems of the plant are stroked, they produce clicking sounds that supposedly mimic the clicks of the language of the Nama, a population of people in northwest Namaqualand. I checked the spines on my plant, and they definitely do make a clicking noise.

The name pachypodium comes from the Greek word “pachys,” meaning thick, and “podion,” meaning foot. Namaquanum refers to Namaqualand, a semi-arid region in the northwestern part of South Africa. Thus, the various nicknames for pachypodiums include club foot, elephant’s trunk, half-man’s and halfmen.

PhotoWhy half-man’s or halfmen? The legend of the Halfmen links this plant to the people of Namaqualand. It is believed that these plants/trees are half-human, half-plant. Indeed, when seen from a distance against the sky, they could be mistaken for humans in family groups.

Nama folklore gives an interesting explanation for the Halfmen. A tribe which once occupied a more forgiving part of southern Namibia was driven southward after a long and bloody conflict. Eventually, these tribe members had to flee to the Richtersveld, a forsaken mountain desert with a fierce broken landscape that must have been created by the gods in a moment of rage.

Overcome by grief and longing for their homeland, a few among the tribe paused to gaze northward for the last time. The gods took pity on these wretched souls and turned them into half-humans or half-men in order to comfort them with a distant view of their lost homeland for eternity (Cowling and Pierce, 1999).

This plant may be considered a protected species, so I am fortunate to have it.

Pachypodium namaquanum – Werner Voigt and Olivia Pekeur, Kirstenbosch NBG
South African Biodiversity Institute – –
Club Foot, Elephant’s Trunk, Half-Man’s, Halfmen – Pachypodium namaquanum
Dave’s Garden –